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La Terra Australis Incognita

Matthew Finders

Europeans had been aware of Australia for many hundreds of years before they first visited, and even had a name for this great unknown south land - Terra Australis Incognita. They also referred to it as The Antipodes, a reference which endures to this day. While Aboriginal people themselves believe that they have always lived in Australia, archaeologists tend to the theory that the Aboriginal people of Australia first migrated from South East Asia many thousands of years ago when the landmasses of the present day Australia and SE Asia were still joined. Notwithstanding, various techniques of dating confirm that certain parts of Australia have been occupied by human beings for at least 60,000 years, perhaps longer, whilst other regions have been occupied by humans for periods of various length, for example, Central Australia is thought to have been inhabited by human beings for circa 20,000 years.

The British captain James Cook is generally credited with having 'discovered' Australia, although it is well documented that various other European sailor-explorers in fact arrived before him. In fact, today the doctrine of discovery has itself been discredited on account of the long prior Indigenous Australian occupation of Australia.

One such example of earlier European contact is that of the French Count Louis de Bougainville, who in 1766 was prevented from landing on the east coast of Australia by a formidable coral reef. When Captain Cook, accompanied by a team of natural scientists, did succeed in landing at Botany Bay in 1788, he did not attempt to negotiate a treaty with the Indigenous inhabitants. The colonisation of Australia by the British was made possible by the legal fiction of terra nullius ('land occupied by no one'). The notion of terra nullius persisted until June1992 when it was overturned by the historic Native Title Act, (better known in popular parlance as the Mabo Decision).

There were a number of other exploratory scientifically-based expeditions to Australia by navigator-explorers, including that of the British sailor Matthew Flinders and his rival, the Frenchman Nicholas Baudin. The 1802 encounter of these two acclaimed sailors has been well documented.

Despite European rivalries, it was the British who eventually claimed Australia under their Crown. It did not take the British authorities long to begin transporting convicts to certain parts of Australia, thereby transforming Australia into a penal colony of considerable notoriety. Eventually many of the convicts gained their freedom, and together with the soldiers and free settlers contributed to the dispossession of the Indigenous people - particularly by taking their land.

Eventually Australia was to gain a considerable reputation for its primary industries, including notably the raising of sheep and cattle and the growing of wheat on the land appropriated by the colonists. The associated land grab exacerbated the existing tensions between Indigenous Australians and the white interlopers, who continued their colonial expansion by 'opening up the country'. The discovery of considerable mineral deposits from the beginning of the 19th century resulted in even more colonial expansion.

Australia's natural wealth, especially the discovery of large deposits of gold in the 1850s, eventually resulted in fewer convicts being sent to Australia by boat, and in the end the British stopped sending convicts to Australia. The discovery of gold was also a catalyst for considerable Chinese migration to the gold fields of Victoria. The gold rush also brought migrants from a number of European countries. At this stage Australia consisted of six separate colonies and two territories.
Despite Australia's agricultural and natural resources, and the colony's general economic prosperity, there was a recession in the 1890s that resulted in a number of major strikes including a shearers' strike. This situation was to lead to the formation of the Labor (Workers) Party at that time.

On the 1st January 1901 the six separate Australian colonies federated to create the new nation of Australia. The first major piece of legislation to be passed by the new Federal Government of Australia was the (now notorious) Immigration Restriction Act (1901), which was to become popularly known as The White Australia Policy. This legislation was mainly aimed at restricting Asian (particularly Chinese) immigration to Australia, and remained in place for a considerable length of time.
Today, the 26th January is celebrated as Australia Day, and is a public holiday. Likewise, in Australia, the 25th April is an annual public holiday, known as ANZAC Day. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day particularly commemorates the role of the ANZACs at Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915, during World War One. Australia also played a considerable role in World War Two, as part of the Allied Forces. (more about Anzac Day)

Whilst in the First World War, Great Britain was Australia's great ally, this was to change in World War II to some extent when the United States came to Australia's aid during the war in the Pacific. This has affected Australian foreign policy since.

After the Second World War, Australia began accepting refugees from both Western and Eastern Europe and increased her immigration programmme. Australia's vulnerability as a so-called 'western' country situated geographically close to South East Asia had been emphasized in WWII, particularly because of Japan's role in the war. The cry became, "Populate or Perish" and there was talk of first, the so-called "Yellow Peril" or yellow hordes to Australia's north. Some years later, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was to talk of his fear of the Domino Effect, whereby Asian groups supposedly hungry for Australian lannd would take over, bit by bit.

Robert Menzies has been, to date, the longest serving Prime Minister of Australia remaining in office between 1949 and 1966. The Menzies Era was known for its general economic prosperity and for high levels of employment. During the Menzies Era Australia fought in the Korean War (1950) and in Malaya (1955).

Australia joined in the Vietnam War, following in the footsteps of the United States. Conscription, which had been in place during WW I, was introduced and it was an extremely unpopular move politically, inspiring many protests and demonstrations and a vigorous anti-war movement.

In 1967 a referendum was held in Australia, which was won convincingly, and as a result which Aboriginal people were effectively granted citizenship rights. Up until that point Aboriginal people had not been counted in the Australian census collections.

1972 marked the electoral victory of the Labor Government of E.G. (Gough) Whitlam, whose government soon embarked on an energetic and ambitious series of socio-political reforms. Included in the Whitlam government's raft of legislative reforms was the abolition of conscription; the abolition of university education fees; lowering the age of compulsory voting from 21 to 18; the introduction of land rights legislation for Aboriginal people; and the introduction of bilingual education programs for Aboriginal people in remote parts of Australia.

Australia's immigration programme, which accelerated following World War 2, resulted in what is possibly the most multicultural nation on earth. Currently Australia's population comprises people from more than 200 different cultural backgrounds. Australia's rich multicultural society has been acclaimed throughout the world and was drawn to the world's attention during the highly successful Sydney Olympic Games of 2000.

Translation: Dr Christine NICHOLLS.

  Some references:
Musée du Quai Branly, Musée des Confluences à Lyon, Musée d'Art Contemporain les Abattoirs à Toulouse, Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie de Vichy, Musée de la Musique, Museum d'histoire naturelle de Lille, Musée de Rochefort, Fondation Electricité de France, Fondation Colas, Banque Dexia ...

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